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The devil made Tim do it

Rapport editor Tim du Plessis has given us a new version of Voltaire’s famous defence of free speech: “I don’t agree with what you say, but I’ll defend your right to say it, unless it harms my employer’s commercial interests, in which case I’ll shut you up quicker than you can say ‘editorial independence’.”

Du Plessis this week fired his columnist Deon Maas, two weeks after he wrote a column on satanism that offended many readers. The column, in which Maas described satanism as just another religion that is protected by the freedom of religion clause in the Constitution, also provoked an email and SMS campaign calling for a boycott of Rapport.

It is clear that Du Plessis expected trouble right from the start. On the same day Maas’s satanism column appeared, he mounted a pre-emptory defensive strike. “Deon,” he wrote his own column, “had made some challenging statements about satanism. If you read carefully, you’ll see that he is calling for an open debate, open minds and open hearts … A mass-circulation newspaper that only publishes soothing matter is not worthy of being called a newspaper.” He concluded with an endorsement of Maas, calling him a “symbol of sorely needed democratic diversity”.

Ten days later, Du Plessis’s support for Maas had cooled. In a statement on the newspaper’s website, he said that Rapport did not support Maas’s views on satanism or any other subject, and that he was “merely a paid columnist giving his own opinions”. Fair enough. But Du Plessis went further, saying that the issue was being investigated and that a statement would be made the following Sunday in Rapport.

Then on Thursday — not even two weeks after Maas’s first column appeared in the newspaper – the following statement by Du Plessis appeared on Rapport‘s website (the translation is mine):

Rapport has terminated Deon Maas’s column. Rapport and Maas have been targeted by a viral campaign waged via email and SMS over Maas’s first column on Sunday before last. The column was about satanism.

The campaign started eight days after the column appeared. The messages asked buyers to boycott Rapport on Sunday 18 November. Later, the campaign also targeted Rapport’s distributors and agents. It affected Rapport‘s commercial interests.

Large numbers of Rapport‘s loyal readers also reacted in good faith. We have taken note of their concerns.

Rapport is committed to media freedom, free expression of ideas and robust debate. The orchestrated boycott campaign, however, altered the nature of the issue from one of freedom of opinion to one of commercial interests.”

Now, I am not naive about the newspaper business. Newspapers have to make money to survive, and editors have the right to appoint and fire columnists as they think fit. It is part — an important part — of an editor’s job to protect and grow the circulation of his newspaper, and sometimes that means having to get rid of writers who alienate readers.

But you don’t appoint Deon Maas to be the gardening columnist. You appoint him to be provocative and controversial, and he was doing exactly what his editor expected of him. This is what Du Plessis said of Maas on November 3: “He is the sort of columnist who seldom leaves you uninterested [the Afrikaans expression is “wat jou selde koud laat”] — and that is precisely what he is supposed to do.” He lasted 12 days.

Du Plessis knew that the satanism column would be provocative and offensive to many readers. If he thought it would be bad for his newspaper, he could have simply pulled it. But he ran it, and defended it as a worthy addition to Rapport even though he expected many readers to complain.

Why did he change his mind? Why did something that was a “symbol of democratic diversity” on November 3 suddenly become a liability 12 days later? From his statement on Thursday, it is clear that what moved him to fire Maas was not that his readers’ disapproval — that is something he surely expected — but the boycott campaign, which threatened to hurt the newspaper’s commercial underbelly.

Did the heavies at Media24 lean on Du Plessis? Is it a sign, like the circulation scandal at Media24’s magazine division, of pressure from management to produce profits? If so, it would be inappropriate interference by management in the editorial domain. Other Media24 editors can’t be sleeping too soundly.

Author

  • Robert Brand teaches media law, ethics and economics journalism at Rhodes University. Before joining academia, he worked as a journalist for the Pretoria News, the Star and Bloomberg News.

64 Comments

  1. Grant W Grant W 22 November 2007

    Frans, I’ll take my chances with hell. If god sends me there he has a lot of answering to do first and if he refuses, he is not the kind of being I could respect anyway so bring on the fires baby.

    If you are wrong, however, you spend your whole life, the only precious one you have, living a big lie. I suspect that most religious people sense this deep down and thats why the majority are not happily awaiting their death no matter how good they have been. A fearful life and nothing after death. That is the hell you are toying with which is every bit as scary to me as a fiery place with pitchforks.

    Logic and reason are what civilises us – religion is the dangerous bedfellow!

  2. Robert Brand Robert Brand 22 November 2007

    Dear Sandile – thanks for your comment but I don’t think it is correct to say, as you do, that the incident “has been greeted by resounding silence by advocates of freedom of expression”. In fact it has provoked more chatter (white noise?) in the blogosphere than anything Essop Pahad ever said, and a number of “advocates of freedom of expression”, including myself, Anton Harber, Ferial Haffajee, Willem Jordaan and others have spoken out against it.
    I agree with you that commercial pressures are a treat to press freedom and diversity, but that doesn’t mean the government doesn’t pose a threat. Read Jonathan Ancer’s most recent posting, for example.

  3. Riaan Riaan 23 November 2007

    Frans, jy dink soos ‘n idioot! Werklik man, vir alle Afrikaners daar buite, bly liewer stil, jy embarras ons. Tim du Plessis is ruggraatloos en Afrikaners wat aanhou soos skape te kere gaan dui maar net daarop dat daardie deel van ons volk nie reg is vir die nuwe wêreld nie.

  4. Frans Frans 23 November 2007

    Liewe Riaan Ek hoop jy het ‘n valskerm aangehad,toe jy besluit om uit die hoogte op my neer te daal,want as ‘n mens soos jy van jou hoogmoed
    na jou Ik spring is die kanse goed dat jy jou nek gaan breek.Totsiens ou maat ek hoop jy kry vir jou ‘n bril en ‘n gehoorstuk,want vir dom mense sien ek kans,vir jou glad nie,want jy is siende en
    horende doof.Tata

  5. Frans Frans 24 November 2007

    Grant,your posting of the 22nd refers.Everyone has
    a free choice to believe or not to believe.If I
    exceed the speed limit due to a faulty speedometer
    and get caught for speeding,do I blame the traffic
    cop who issued the fine or the faulty speedometer.
    You can always go and put the blame on the manufacturer and
    seek recourse for damages suffered,but if you see
    that you’re constantly driving faster than everybody else,or have people tell you that you are,you should at least stop and consider that
    your speedometer could be wrong.But what ever you do don’t blame the traffic and call him a so-and-so
    unless you can proof his speedtrapping equipment is
    wrong.Now this opportunity will arise for everybody
    Christians,Muslims etc. when we are finally called
    to account by our Creator for our lives and conduct here on earth.I hope you have a pretty
    good advocate on your side,because our creator is not only
    a loving God,but also the final judge in matters of
    good and evil.I am not too worried though,because
    I have the finest advocate on my side to defend me,
    His name is Jesus.What is the name of your advocate or are you
    going to take your chances and defend yourself?

    If I as you put have taken my chances and land in
    hell( not brimstone,fire but just forgotten by him) because I have been led by a faulty moral mind
    and outlook,ignoring God’s law,do I blame God or my views of right and wrong.
    Further to your comment of having to dodge my Platteland boeties or Muslim friends,all I am asking of you not to condemn their lifestyle,moral believes even if you think that they are a lot of so-and-so,they are friendly and hospitable people,
    who won’t bash you up,unless you start to abuse their hospitality and insult them and their believes,even in the name of free speech,only then
    they might take you by the scruff of the neck and
    throw you out.!!

  6. Bruce Bruce 24 November 2007

    I have been trying to find a link to the original story – but it’s proving elusive.

    Can anyone point me in the right direction?

    (If I start talking in parseltongue afterwards, I will let you know)

    Thanksssssssssss

  7. Frans Frans 29 November 2007

    Sorry,Bruce you won’t find one,let us blame the devil and say he did it!!!

  8. Albertus van Wyk Albertus van Wyk 5 December 2007

    Far more worrying than Tim du Plessis’ (is the apostrophy correct?) stance on Deon Maas, is the state of rugby reporting in this newspaper. It is shocking! Can we please have some better writers? Please.

    Or can somebody else please start writing on rugby since I have to buy Rapport because it is the only paper covering the Saturday games in any depth.

  9. reminder: reminder: 11 December 2007

    angasi nkosi angasi nkosi

  10. Gavin Foster Gavin Foster 11 December 2007

    I’m getting confused. Was this not Thought Leader? Somebody please point Frans back to You / Huisgenoot.

  11. Stevland Stevland 2 January 2008

    My grandfather (who was a wise insightful gentleman, with pipe dangling from the corner of his mouth, may his soul RIP) once sat me down and said to me son, let me tell you something, never argue with a fool, he/she will drag you down to their level and proceed to beat you with experience, hence I shall reserve all comments that I would’ve liked to address to “my maat Frans”

    I call the views that are shared by all those that condemn this piece that I havent read and would seriously love to get my grubby little paws on, “The Christian-Centric views” – the arrogance of Christians all of them, Catholics, Anglicans (the latter being the denomination I grew up in), Protestants, New Appelstokkies etc etc etc, makes me sick to my stomach……..how THEY villify and ridicule all that opposes “their superior” religion, when it is clearly stated in OUR word, “You have not been called upon to judge, thats my job…..I will have the last say in terms of who joins me with halos and the sweet melodic sounds of the harps playing in the hereafter, just keep your nose clean and all will be well with you my child” – Selective religious principles I’d say. This kind of thinking is indeed very dangerous Grant, because the Bible also speaks of an eye for an eye…….you see where Im going with us, so I shall not further dwell on the point. What irritates me the most about these types of “intellectuals” are that they fail to grasp the hypocrisy of their actions. Please people read something, edumacate yourselves.

    The best laugh I’ve had with the former group was when I recommended the book “The Da Vinci Code” to a colleauge, who is fervently religious, and flippin intellectual to boot. The response I got was, I couldnt possibly read that, what if it alters my perception on what I have grown up to believe. My retort, “Not much belief then?” – Herein lies the root cause of the condemnation of said piece on Satanism, CF’s are at once scared that the article would make so much sense, which Im sure it does, that they will lose their following or sheeple as Ndumiso Ngcobo calls it, to this Satanism thingy mabobby…….laughable and utterly immature I tell you. Hey CF, listen up, its not the rest of the worlds fault that your faith and that of your sheeple are not strong enough to withstand the “Satan you are not welcome in my home tidal wave that threatens to convert Christians the world over” – Sit back relax and in the words of the legendary Richard Pryor, have a coke and a smile.

    In conclusion,
    My favourite quote from my favourite movie of all time, The Devils Advocate. (Which by the way the same person couldnt watch, for the same reason, however I digress)

    “The Devils favourite sin is, Vanity” – Al Pacino.

    Frans, when you LOOK in the mirror, you’ll see, that you guilty of it too. (Sorry I knew I said I wouldnt but just couldnt resist)

    To the Christian fundamentalist I have this too stay, pray rather than condemn. There is great power in prayer I am told by those in the know, and considering that you form a part of the caucus of the great believers, you should know this 2, if you dont, whats written in the scribes of Matthew might just apply to you, “Many are called upon but few are chosen”

    I rest.
    Former Christian, born again thinker.

  12. Shirley Shirley 30 August 2014

    WOW just what I was searching for. Came here by searching for
    conveyancing

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